Governments and civil society organizations are once again calling into question Canada’s leadership on the Violence Against Women (VAW) resolution at the UN Human Rights Council. During this most recent session of the Council, which took place in June 2014, the Government of Canada, chairing the negotiations of the resolution entitled ‘Violence against women as a barrier to women’s political and economic empowerment’ (A/HRC/26/L.26), steadfastly neglected proposals from other governments to strengthen the text of the resolution in relation to the sexual and reproductive rights of women and girls. Due to Canada’s actions the final resolution once again fails to guarantee access to a comprehensive package of sexual and reproductive health information, goods and services to women and girls. This not only represents a barrier to women’s health, rights and well-being, but also to their ability to freely participate in political and economic activities.
Consistently declining proposals from numerous states, including the resolutions’ traditional co-sponsors, demonstrated unwillingness on Canada’s part to engage in meaningful dialogue with other states regarding ways to strengthen the content of the resolution. The concerns raised by Canada’s traditional allies arose initially when Canada tabled a weak first draft, which did not contain any references to sexual and reproductive rights and health. States continued to express disappointment in the process as Canada repeatedly disregarded their constructive proposals, specifically proposals raised during informal negotiations witch aimed to meaningfully integrating sexual and reproductive rights and health into the text.
The final text of the resolution includes two references to sexual and reproductive health and rights, specifically the recognition that “respecting and promoting sexual and reproductive health, and protecting and fulfilling reproductive rights in accordance with the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development, the Beijing Platform for Action and the outcome documents of their review conferences is a necessary condition to achieve gender equality and the empowerment of women,” (Preambular paragraph 19) and the calling on states to reduce “barriers to women’s social, economic and political empowerment, including by promoting and protecting sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights” (Operative Paragraph 6 (k)). These references can be attributed to persistent efforts made on behalf of states including France, Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland and Uruguay, among others. Without their perseverance, Canada would not have voluntarily proposed such language, despite both references being weakened versions of previously agreed upon language.
Disappointed with the process, Canada’s traditional allies, namely France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, Slovakia, Switzerland and Uruguay, refused to co-sponsor the resolution and delivered a joint statement expressing deep concern regarding Canada’s approach to facilitating consensus on the resolution, specifically Canada’s approach to proposals related to sexual and reproductive rights. The EU and the US expressed similar concern. The US expressed that the “resolution should have contained specific references to sexual and reproductive health services which…are crucial because the risk of pregnancy is also an important possible outcome of rape,” noting that other international documents recognize the need for survivors of violence to have access to emergency contraception, safe abortion, and post-exposure prophylactics for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections and affirming that the “Council should also do the same.” South Africa voiced additional concerns regarding the lack of tangible interventions to address VAW contained within the resolution, despite having raised this with Canada on numerous occasions and urging Canada to rethink its approach to this resolution. In the end, only
54 (correction: 80, as of July 11 2014) out of 193 states co-sponsored the resolution.
Canada’s actions during this recent session of the UN Human Rights Council demonstrate not only Canada’s ongoing failure as a self-described global leader on the issue of VAW by meaningfully recognizing the links between VAW and sexual and reproductive rights, but also the continued alienation of its traditional allies. As suggested, in confidence, by other states in response to this resolution, it is time for Canada to consider relinquishing its role of chair of this annual resolution should it continue to block reference to effective strategies to eliminate all forms of violence against women.